What I think about cancel culture

I probably shouldn’t write this.  On social issues, I am very libertarian.  Like, live your life however you want as long as you respect the law, and it’s none of my business. Because anything I say now about cancel culture will be conjoined at the hip with J K Rowling.  If you don’t believe me, that was the fate that befell the signatories of the open letter in defence of free speech published on Harper’s.

But I have been thinking about why I have strong views on this issue.  And about the question I get that do I think free speech means freedom from consequences?

The answer to that question is clearly, no.  Yes, you have every right to engage me without your tone being policed.  Even if you are wrong, you have the right to call me a bigot.  Because that comes with the territory. Free speech.

But I don’t believe people would be talking about cancel culture if it was just that.

Two incident documented here and here suggest it’s much more than that.

The firing of David Shor in particular shook me at my very core.  Back in 2009, I had dreamed of pursuing a PhD in economics and had been advised that my pursuit would be better served if I did so abroad rather than in India.  But with the meltdown then in full swing, people already stuck in UK and US warned me not to take the leap and I didn’t.  And I reflect today that had I done so, I could have been David Shor, fired for a totally innocuous communication only because I would have been employed in one of the occupations that appear particularly vulnerable to cancel culture (though not the only ones, see the other example) – writers, journalists, academics and think-tank operatives.

For perspective, I still live in India, an India that was already in the grip of a prolonged recession except as per official stats even before covid and whose political situation is what it is.  But these are problems I know how to deal with or at least am aware of.  Had you told me in 2009 that there would emerge a culture in America, of all places, that would force me to watch my back lest I get fired with no second chances even if I don’t say anything wrong and am simply misconstrued, I would have simply refused to believe you.  On a side note, you are going to ask why am I poking my nose in American matters if I don’t have skin in the game and my answer to that is, no, I do have and I am not going to tell you how and why as I am entitled to keep that private.

But let’s get back to the crux of it: being fired with no second chances.

The idea that it should be ok, in all cases indiscriminately, for someone to be fired with no second chances, no opportunity to present your side, no opportunity either to apologize and/or delete the tweet or social media post in question, is, quite simply, draconian and frightening.

Yes, it does not violate the First Amendment.  But it is not the First Amendment that makes a society free.  It is a tolerance of diverse opinions that does.  Otherwise, only the President and other politicians would enjoy First Amendment protections.  And that’s where America seems to have got to. The President can ask four Congresswomen to go back to their countries and nobody can do anything about it because he is the President.  But if David Shor shares a study that suggests peaceful protests help liberals in elections and riots help conservatives, he is a bigot and should be fired even if he apologizes or takes back his tweet (and he did apologize)?  I hope at least juxtaposing the two things in the way that I have helps you understand why this is mad.

Back to tolerance.  No, tolerance does not mean I am saying you are to tolerate my bigoted opinions.  Tolerance means only that you tolerate the notion that a person may make a mistake and should be given an opportunity to make amends.  Now, does saying the N word come under those ‘mistakes’?  I don’t think so.  And I think if we apply a bit of common sense, it is easy enough to separate blatantly bigoted expressions from those that are only being construed as such via a particular interpretation.

It behooves corporations to undertake due process before firing somebody for such a reason.  Allow the person to show the entire conversation and make their case and then, independently judge whether it could at least be construed as a bonafide mistake.  If the person has made a mistake, ask them to apologize and remove the tweet/post.

If a person has a habit of saying blatantly bigoted things and then apologizing and deleting them when caught, have a three strikes rule so nobody gets to take undue advantage of tolerance.

What I am saying: there are practical ways to address this in a way that it does not start to resemble censorship imposed through the instrument of corporate power.  Corporations themselves ought to consider such approaches in the first place.  (Perhaps, they don’t because they enjoy being ceded so much power by the left.  Hoo boy, companies get to decide what people should say…couldn’t ask for anything better, from a corporate perspective. )

BUT it also behooves the militant, activist online left to consider such approaches on their own part.  Yes, you can hound a person and their employer until the employer decides the person is a hot potato and drops them like one. But just because you can doesn’t mean it is right, from a moral perspective.  So don’t feel too morally uppity about yourself; it’s possible that in your zealousness, you may have destroyed someone’s life and hopefully you are still able to sleep tight in the knowledge that you did.

A large part of what makes us human is indeed that we are not perfect.  Best not to destroy that imperfection by attempting to impose a moral language code, especially if it’s quite possible that in the fullness of time, said code will consume you as well.  It is hard to visualize that in your teens, in your twenties but when today’s normal speech becomes the bigotry of the 2040s and your tweets from back in 2020 can be used against you?  What then?

To conclude, I repeat, a framework where what one tweets does not come without consequences but where the ‘offender’ is given ample opportunity to explain themselves or to make amends and demonstrate regret before the ultimate consequence of parting them from their livelihood, might be the way to go. It will not deliver instant gratification to the twitter mob but life is not lived in an instant and a life’s work should not be wiped out in an instant either, not unless demonstrably good cause exists to justify doing so.

PS: If you want to troll me for posting a Reason.com link, please don’t waste your time.  The Nymag article about Shor is how I came to know about it and I could have posted that instead. I did not because these are precisely the kind of needy grievances I have come to detest.  I am not spreading anything, other than information, by posting those links.

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